x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Childhood dream comes true for RAK rescue pilot

When, as a little boy, Saeed Al Yammahi saw aircraft soar above the Hajjar Mountains near his home he knew what he wanted to become in life.

Ras Al Khaimah Colonel helicopter pilot Saeed Al Yammahi standing in Wadi Baih, Ras Al Khaimah, where he rescued 400 people during flash floods in 2008. Sarah Dea / The National
Ras Al Khaimah Colonel helicopter pilot Saeed Al Yammahi standing in Wadi Baih, Ras Al Khaimah, where he rescued 400 people during flash floods in 2008. Sarah Dea / The National

RAS AL KHAIMAH // When Saeed Al Yammahi was a little boy he spent his childhood climbing mountains with goats. Now he flies above them.

Raised in the Hajjar Mountains, Col Al Yammahi knows how dangerous they can be.

When dark clouds cross the skies and families rush to the mountains in celebration, he prepares his helicopters and his pilots. As head of RAK Air Wing for the RAK Police, it is his responsibility to rescue people from flash floods and stormy seas.

Last Friday he saved the lives of six Iranian sailors, who had been adrift at sea in a dinghy for more than six hours after strong winds and high waves sunk their trade ship. Col Al Yammahi led the search.

"When you fly an airplane you will see nothing," he says. "You will only see the sky and maybe the ground but when you fly in a helicopter you will see what you want to see."

As a boy in the small mountain village of Tawaeen, he saw planes and helicopters soar above his mountains.

A soldier's son, he was born four years after the country was founded. It would be decades before his village had a paved road, but the first traces of modernity had already entered its skies.

Flight was a childhood dream. But airplanes were out; the young Col Al Yammahi wanted to feel the wind.

After graduating, he enrolled in a helicopter pilot programme in Sharjah, which had been the centre of the region's air force since the British mandate. In 1993, his class was only the second to graduate.

After 120 hours of flight time, Col Al Yammahi traded his kandura for jeans and moved to Dallas, Texas to get his commercial licence.

On his return, he was invited by the head of the RAK Police to join the new RAK Air Wing unit. He had returned to his mountains.

Since then, he has been instrumental in the unit's transformation. He flies developers and Rulers who dream of lofty hotels and motorways over his hills and delivers building supplies to remote mountain villages that are being rebuilt by a young generation.

He is an ambassador for development among the elderly tribesmen who still joke about "shooting" the quarries and hotels built on their mountains.

"Old people, if they have good houses, good roads, good goats, they will be happy. We have so many roads, before we had only dust.

"We don't change the mountains too much. We make a road. We make electricity. We make water pipes. This is very good for men. We don't crush the mountains like the quarry."

But the access brought by development is not without peril. Col Al Yammahi has led two major rescues in the Wadi Al Baih valley after flash floods entrapped 330 people in 2010 and 400 people in 2008.

"They don't know about the danger and the risk and they go. What can we do? We should help them."

Those roads have since been repaired and the area dredged to stop flooding.

More recent rescues have usually involved hikers unfamiliar with local terrain. Then, Col Al Yammahi's team of pilots enlists the help of villagers raised in the mountains.

They climb to the hikers and lead them to abandoned wheat terraces on mountain outcrops, where the helicopters can land safely.

His best guides are the old men of Wadi Ghalilah, who ascend in flipflops at the speed of their goats.

When he is not on rescue missions, he flies VIPs to palaces and camel tracks, searches for illegal immigrants and delivers chocolate to schoolchildren. On National Day RAK Air Wing did fly-by chocolate deliveries to 80 schools.

When it snowed in 2009 and 2004, Col Al Yammahi flew photographers above Jebel Jais mountain.

On the ground, he manages a department of 25 staff, six pilots and five types of helicopters from Russia, Germany and Poland. Details on the aircraft are confidential.

"You know we are pilots and we love this job," he told The National in 2010. "We enjoy it but there's too much risk in the mountains, there's up draft, down draft, strong winds that make so much turbulence for us.

"But like a bird when you cut his wings he feels bad. We are like this. If we don't fly for two or three days it's a bad situation for us."

Above all, it brings him closer to his mountains. "This is my childhood," he says. "When I open my eyes, in my life and myself I see mountains."

Col Saeed Al Yammahi and his RAK Air Wing team rescue people from rough seas and mountain flash floods every winter. Almost all follow meteorologists' warnings to avoid the sea and mountains.

"I want to tell the people that when it's winter, when it rains, please be away from the valleys," said Col Al Yammahi. "Stay away from the mountains because rain is strong in the mountain and in the valleys it comes quickly. For the sailors, when there is too much wind and waves, please read the weather chart before you sail. For the climbers, know the mountains here are different than other countries. If you don't know the area exactly don't go and don't climb.

"Please, don't believe anyone who tells you this mountain is good or this mountain is nice. OK, it's a nice place but you should read about it before you climb it."

azacharias@thenational.ae